"Girls should not wear provocative clothes."
"Tight clothes and jeans cause rape."
"Good Indian girls cover up."
"She was a bit of a loose character anyway."
"Cellphones in the hands of women is what is causing trouble."
If you live in India, chances are you have heard the above lines. Despite all the increased attention and deliberations on crimes against women, this "it-was-kind-of-her-fault" narrative refuses to die down. It is not just limited to ordinary citizens. We have had people in power make similar statements. Many religious organization heads believe the same, as do large sections of the police force. Sure, feminists scream and, with media outrage, shut down such people. However, deep down, the beliefs remain.
In fact, it's not just men; a lot of Indian women believe the same too. Many Indian women also think and sometimes say, "Why does she have to wear skimpy clothes?" or "Why did she have to go watch a movie late at night?"
"It is much easier to assume that the victim somehow is different from the women around me."
The important question is: Why do such attitudes prevail? Why do so many of our citizens believe women not behaving in a certain way are asking for trouble or are not "good girls"? What is the core fundamental issue here? More importantly, how do we convince them to think otherwise -- that what a woman chooses to wear is her choice and that it's important for society to protect that choice.
For the extreme feminist outrage isn't working. Until we engage with all sides, no matter how regressive their attitude, we will never make a breakthrough in attitudes towards women.
So why do many Indians think this way in the first place? Two main reasons: the first is it acts as a coping mechanism. Rape is a devastating occurrence. It is unnerving to believe that all women are at risk. It is much easier to assume that the victim somehow is different from the women around me. It is somewhat comforting to believe that if my daughter or sister dresses a certain way or behaves in a certain manner, they will not be susceptible. It gives a scared person a sense of control, a fake reassurance.
"It is much easier to scream at your daughter for wearing a tight pair of jeans."
However, the reality is that how a women dresses has little correlation with rape. What matters often are men's attitudes towards women, the kind of law enforcement system in place and a certain understanding of sexuality in society at-large. Of course, the regressive mindset finds dealing with all this far too complex and out of its control. It is much easier to scream at your daughter for wearing a tight pair of jeans.
The second reason why women are asked to cover up is to deny them their sexual power.
Various kinds of power exist in society. We all know about political and economic power. Another example is power of the pen, which I use here, to make my points across to you. There is a primitive form of power called muscle power, where one can physically harm the other person. Males have been granted more muscle power than women on average. Women, on the other hand, have been granted a certain sexual power. Through that sexual power, a woman can come across as attractive to a man, who will then need her consent to take things forward. This sexual power counterbalances the extra muscle power given to males.
"A woman has a certain sexual power, and she has the right to use it if she chooses to."
However, most male-dominated societies have denied and judged women who try to use this power. When we ask women to cover up, we deny them their choice in expressing their power. Therein lies the inequality. We never say men should have their hands tied up when they go on the streets, to check their muscle power, so that they cannot molest a woman. However, we have no qualms in saying a woman better cover up if she doesn't want to be molested. Therein lies an inherent biased attitude against women. It is denying women their free will, with no equivalent penalty for men. What's worse, in the case of an untoward incident, it lets the offender off the hook and questions the victim instead.
That is why this attitude must change. A woman has the right to aim to look attractive walking down the street. And a man, no matter how immensely and inexplicably attracted to her he is, has to seek her consent before he can infringe on her personal space. Hence, a woman has a certain sexual power, and she has the right to use it if she chooses to.
The regressive side will then often ask the automatic question, "Like all powers, can't the woman abuse that power? Can't she entice, hook, tease or give mixed signals to a man if we give her that free will?" The answer is yes. Yes, she can abuse that power to a certain extent, though that tends to be the exception. And if that happens, you cannot act without consent and say she was asking for it. Lack of consent is unjustifiable in any circumstance, period.
We have to make all our men and women understand these concepts. Outrage won't help. Sensitivity to women's issues will come from educating our broad population about power, individual rights and free will. Meanwhile, she can and she will wear whatever she wants. Not because she is modern or inspired by the West or has corrupted her values. It is simply because she is a free citizen living in a free country called India. And don't you dare try to deny her that.